England start another bunch of limited-overs cricket matches today with the same old promise. One day they intend to be some good at one-day cricket.
Their last excursion into limited-overs territory was wretched, ending in a 5-0 defeat in India. Had the terrorist atrocity in Mumbai not intervened to curtail the series, it would probably have been 7-0. England have had their moments in the limited-overs game – they beat South Africa 4-0 at home last summer – but for most of the past 10 years have been a middle-ranking side short of ideas and skill.
There has always been another team who have innovated and whom England have eventually tried to imitate. Playing catch-up only works for so long before somebody else comes along with another plan. So the cycle has continued.
"What's important," said the new one-day captain, Andrew Strauss, yesterday in addressing this very issue, "is to mould the team according to your strengths and not somebody else's. We have a good idea of the type of cricket we want to play. One thing that is very important for us is to get more out of the players we have got. We need to score more hundreds, be more consistent and put other teams under pressure more often. There is a lot of talent there but we need to get more out of them."
How to do this has exercised a succession of coaches, captains and teams. None of them has ever quite nailed it for the long term. England have always seemed uncomfortable in the one-day format, fretting about how to play at the top of the innings, never quite milking enough in the middle and usually failing to score with enough freedom at the end.
They tend to get into a muddle. This is reflected in their approach to the bowling, which has rarely found a rhythm and confidence from one match to the next. Like the batsmen, the bowlers are unsure how to react in power plays, of which there is one of 10 overs at the start of the innings and two of five later on, one of which is now decided by the batting side. Scores of runs are at stake on both sides. Fear, it seems, is the key.
"One thing that is important in one-day cricket is not to play with fear," said Strauss. "Fear creates a lot of problems both individually and collectively. It's a lot easier said than done not to play with fear and you need to earn the right to do that, but as a general theme it's important that we play good, aggressive cricket both with the bat and the ball."
In some ways this was a variation on the theme of all England's one-day captains of recent vintage. But none has enunciated it as baldly as Strauss. To ensure the success of the plan he will have to lead from the front both as captain and batsman.
Before he was appointed captain at the start of the year, in the wake of the Kevin Pietersen-Peter Moores imbroglio, Strauss must have assumed his one-day career was at an end. He was dropped after a poor run culminating at the 2007 World Cup. But he was rightly recalled as a steadying hand, and if it may not be certain where he should go in the batting order, England's form has not been so prolific as to suggest he is unworthy of a place.
Most of his 77 matches have been as an opener or No 4. If he opens again, he must be accompanied by someone who can take bigger hitting advantage of the early overs. He has hit only eight sixes in 50-over internationals.
The one-day leg of the tour begins at Queen's Park Oval today with the solitary Twenty20 match. Nominally the least significant, because it is a one-off match (in accordance with ICC guidelines which positively discourage T20 internationals), it will doubtless be played in front of packed stands full of people having a good time and showing it. "It's a one-off game and the one thing we wouldn't do is belittle the game, because it's such an important part of the future of the game of cricket," said Strauss. "If ever is the right time to win, now is it."
It is in this format that Strauss may be less proficient. It is six years since he scored the second of his two T20 half-centuries. His appointment lasts until the end of the tour, and if England were to play blindfold French cricket tomorrow he would be the only choice as captain. But come the summer and the World Twenty20 being held in England before the Ashes and seven one-dayers against Australia, that could change. To whom, nobody knows. But starting today, Strauss's one-day future is already at stake again.
For reasons only the selectors know, Dimitri Mascarenhas was dropped by England last summer, writes Stephen Brenkley. There was no explanation, presumably in an equivalent of the 30-year rule governing the release of Cabinet papers. He has been recalled to the one-day squad for more obvious reasons. England were hopeless without him, and he announced his return with an unbeaten 84 in their 50-over practice match against a Players' Association XI at Guaracara Park. It was wholly characteristic of the late-order hitting which marked his previous efforts, his runs coming in 55 balls with two sixes in the final three overs. With half- centuries also for Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell, the captain in Andrew Strauss's absence, England's 299 for 8 was more than enough. The WIPA came out slugging but were also reckless and England had a meaningless but welcome victory.